|Nirai, Photographs by Manabu Someya. |
Published by Tosei-Sha, 2010.
Reviewed by Faye Robson
MANABU SOMEYA Nirai
Photographs by Manabu Someya. Tosei-Sha, 2010. Hardbound. 84 pp., 74 color illustrations throughout, 10-1/2x10-1/4".
In one, strangely absorbing, image from Manabu Someya's Nirai, a small selection of clothes hang from the long, makeshift washing line strung across an urban rooftop. These T-shirts, a single sheet and several smaller pieces of laundry - gathered, inexplicably, on a still smaller laundry rack - cluster together in the centre of the large-format photograph, dwarfed by the neglected space around them and the wider context of a dense residential neighbourhood. A neat metaphor for urban anonymity, the photo is also representative of a sub-section of the book where the photographer focuses on small urban spaces, usually devoid of human presence, where the signs of decay or disuse point to ... well, they point to decay and disuse.
The question is, what does any of this have to do with death, or the co-existence of life and death in the minds of these place's inhabitants? The project of this book, as the artist describes it, is to explore the notion of 'Nirai Kanai' - a mythical locale to which the spirits of the dead are said to travel in the culture of the southern Japanese prefecture Okinawa. In the 74 colour images featured here, Someya sets out to visualize this place as it 'co-exists' with the lives lived by real people in the Okinawa region and further south, in Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines.
As Antone Dolezal pointed out in his post about Nirai on the photo-eye BLOG, this kind of spiritual, or at least non-physical, subject matter sits at the limits of what photography can easily communicate, and Someya seems to struggle to find a coherent form for this work. There are images that do successfully hint at the presence of a parallel reality - be it truly mythical or simply psychological. The numinous light that characterizes many of the street scenes included here flattens buildings and objects so that even familiar or mundane sights can seem threatening or unreal.
Of course not every photobook has to make a statement or set out a coherent 'project' - many work simply as collections of beautiful or absorbing images. Someya has set out, however, to document a very particular strand within the cultures of the countries featured here, and we might expect to finish the work sharing something of his connection with the subject. Unable to literally follow his journey (the photos are not arranged geographically or chronologically), it is disappointing that the book doesn't have a more pronounced visual logic. Simply juxtaposing panoramic shots of a city with images of skulls at an undefined burial ground does not automatically give an insight into this region's relation to mortality. —Faye Robson
Faye Robson is an editor of illustrated books, currently based in London, UK. She has worked on photobooks for publishers including Aperture Foundation, New York and Phaidon Press, London.